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MIT Fires Professor Van Parijs for Using Fake Data in Papers

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: An Oct. 28 front-page article about MIT’s dismissal of Professor Luk Van Parijs incorrectly described one of his former research collaborators. While Michael McManus has been a coauthor with Van Parijs on several papers, he did not work in Van Parijs’ laboratory.

By Kelley Rivoire

Professor of Biology Luk Van Parijs has been dismissed after admitting to fabricating and falsifying research data, MIT announced yesterday.

Van Parijs, who came to MIT five years ago and was promoted to associate professor last July, first came under fire in August 2004, when members of his laboratory in the Center for Cancer Research reported allegations of misconduct to MIT. They “couldn’t find or identify some of the data,” said Alice P. Gast, vice president for research and associate provost. Van Parijs could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The subsequent investigation launched by MIT, which Gast oversaw, concluded this week and made recommendations to Provost L. Rafael Reif, who made the decision to dismiss Van Parijs, she said. The investigation, conducted by “senior members of the community,” whom Gast declined to name specifically, only concerned Van Parijs’ work at MIT, she said.

There was a “serious enough set of allegations and admission by him that he was put on leave and denied access to his lab” immediately last August, Gast said.

None of his coauthors have been implicated, Gast said, and retractions will be printed on the appropriate articles. “We’ll be helping the coauthors to ensure that they’re all participants in retractions,” but “it’s the coauthors’ responsibility,” she said.

Gast declined to comment on which papers would be retracted or what specific body of work was affected. Van Parijs, whose research focuses on immune system functions and RNAi technologies, has published about 20 research papers since arriving at MIT, including a 2003 paper in Nature Genetics that has been cited 247 times. A paper in Science in which he was lead author, published in 1998 before he came to MIT, has drawn 461 citations. Van Parijs obtained his doctoral degree from Harvard in 1997.

Van Parijs’ coauthors in research papers include Professors Tyler E. Jacks, Rudolf Jaenisch, Harvey F. Lodish, Frank Gertler, Institute Professor and Nobel Laurate Phillip A. Sharp, and Nobel Laureate and Caltech President David Baltimore. Baltimore, who declined to comment, was previously involved in a lengthy investigation into alleged misconduct by a coauthor, who was eventually exonerated. Several of Van Parijs’ other coauthors also declined to comment.

MIT’s current scientific misconduct policy has been in place for over a decade, Gast said, and during that time there have been no incidents.

Gast praised the members of Van Parijs’ research group who brought forward the allegations of misconduct. “It’s really those closest to the research that would be able to determine or notice something like this. It’s a case where the system worked, and they felt comfortable coming forward.” The “process worked exactly the way you would want it to,” she said.

The “investigation is a confidential process to fully gather all the facts related to the case,” she said. “It involves collecting information from materials as well as interviews with the people bringing forward the allegations as well as the respondent … as well as others involved in the research. It’s a confidential process, and it was done very carefully and very thoroughly over the 14-month period.”

Van Parijs admitted to fabricating and falsifying research data in a paper and several manuscripts and grant applications over the course of the investigation, according to an MIT press release.

Because part of Van Parijs’ funding came from the federal government, the U.S. Office of Research Integrity will also conduct a confidential investigation, Gast said. The Office of Research Integrity in the Department of Health and Human Services was created in 1989 to investigate scientific fraud.

While the physics community was rocked in 2002 by the revelation that Bell Labs star physicist Jan Hendrik Sch n had falsified data on which many others had subsequently based their research, it seems unlikely that this incident will have the same effects.

“The field is quite a vibrant field with many excellent people doing outstanding work,” Gast said. She said she did not think it would significantly impact the field of RNAi research.

Peter Sandy, a postdoctoral associate who spent a year working with Van Parijs, also doubted the broader impact of Van Parijs’ actions. “I don’t think that it will affect the field because there are a lot of great publications,” he said, and “most of the things they published I think are true.”

Regarding his own work, he said his research will be unaffected, as he no longer works on the same projects as he did while in Van Parijs’ laboratory.

Michael McManus, a University of California San Francisco professor who formerly worked in Van Parijs’ laboratory, also said that the incident “doesn’t really affect my work.”

Gast said that Van Parijs’ former graduate students “have been able to carry on their research with new advisors and new projects.” MIT has “done the best we can to take care of their futures,” she said.

In recent years, many have called into question the competitive “publish-or-perish” environment that can drive scientific research. Nicholas Steneck, University of Michigan professor of history and a consultant for the ORI, reported in 2000 that while one in 100,000 researchers had been involved in misconduct cases, reported knowledge of misconduct is higher than one percent.

Gast said she said that she knew of no similar conduct by other individuals or environment that would lead to such conduct at MIT. “It’s an isolated individual behavior,” she said. “I don’t think it’s endemic or systemic.” Nonetheless, the case “may serve as an important lesson” that “integrity is extremely important to scientific research,” she said.

Beckett W. Sterner contributed to the reporting of this story.